Artists Of The Year
by Camden Joy
If you could see what I see when I see Vic Chestnutt, what would you see? You'd see a major-label act in a wheelchair, clawing at his instrument, and realize this is one star you can't envy. He is literally trapped up there before you; he could turn himself and slowly wheel away but it would take some time. You'd see him getting lost, he often does when he sings--gets lost, starts over, forgets words, gives up, moves on. You'd see that something is making him do this, not pleasure (not his, not yours), not greed, but something bigger (he has to). You'd see him noun-ifying cute adjectives amidst a flurry of puns and riddlespeak--these awkwardly detailed, squashed snapshots he convinces you are songs, which more resemble cubist renderings of pop music. You'd see him at times unkept, near-death, pallor positively green, yet always singing like a beautiful boy, sneaking breaths into lines, drawling wisecracks in an exaggerated accent. You'd see him over the years slowly but surely adding company, embracing technique; first making his shy wife learn bass, then surrounding himself with regular musicians who might straighten his sometimes meandering sound, until you'd see him roll into a live radio broadcast last year with a virtual orchestra in tow, so many musicians they outnumbered the audience, and their dynamics, their lush, drawn-out arrangements, restored the spirit like some fresh Astral Weeks. You'd see--paradoxically--that the more musicians who back him, the more directly you experience his presence in a song. You'd see there are no other youngsters contracted to big companies who so well risk the poignant and profound.
Camden Joy's The Last Rock Star Book, or Liz Phair: A Rant, will be published this Spring by Portland's Verse Chorus Press
JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN
by Alexs Pate
Let's face it, most of the novels being published these days barely deserve the title of literature. The popular novel, a rather soulless thing in the first place, is often used by writers who can barely fill in the blanks. There is a whole plethora of what an aunt of mine would call "educated fools" who have studied fiction and memorized the rules. And there are plenty of rules. Things you're supposed to do, like make your characters interesting and quirky, and things you're not supposed to do, like maybe tell your story in a random non-chronological way.
Generally these rules are wise. But when a writer or a reader opens a John Edgar Wideman book, Philadelphia Fire or The Cattle Killing, published this year, for instance, you suddenly realize how much bullshit you've been taught by teachers who were terrified of breaking rules. The thing is, Wideman doesn't break rules as much as he ignores them. A little like Toni Morrison but more so. And in his fierce, arrogant, beautifully confident voice, we make all sorts of discoveries as we skank along with his story. We learn stuff. We swoon at the sparks his words make up against each other. We think about race and identity in brand new ways. Wideman offers us fiction with high minded purpose and he has the courage not to reduce it to the lowest common denominator.
Alexs Pate's new novel is Finding Makeba.
by Greil Marcus
The Chiesa dei Frari in Venice--the Franciscan chapel--is full of treasures and wonders, but one afternoon in November the glow of Titian's altar piece Assumption of the Virgin cast them all into darkness. I tried, but for 40 minutes I couldn't look at anything else--this huge painting, nearly half a millennium old, seemingly vaulting out of the earth and into the sky. It didn't matter from what angle one approached it (or tried to evade it, as if by looking at it sideways its power could be diminished)--this work cast others into darkness because it was capable of casting a spell on whoever looked at it. Oh well, I thought, so much for pop--I now understand that the only art is high art, that the only high art is religious, and that the only religious art is about Christ...
The Virgin is lifting up to heaven, out of a crowd of apostles. God is looking down, a dark and even harrowing expression on his face, as if he isn't sure the figure rising deserves to. The field of the painting is crowded with onlookers, saints, angels, people--you can feel history breaking up, the course of human events revealed as trivial if not altogether false. But what is disturbing, awful, and enrapturing is the expression, or expressions, on Mary's face, which is at once still and unstable. For while this is a rapture, and the viewer can be enraptured, there is no rapture here: In her eyes and mouth and bones is awe, fear, uncertainty, maybe a hint of anticipation, of curiosity. God looks down, she looks up, a force-field is established, and there's no way out; walking out of the place won't do it. I did that, walked back in twice, it was weeks ago, and once a day I think of going back.
Greil Marcus' Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, will be published by Henry Holt in April.
by Charles Aaron
"You know, that's not really hip hop." This was the retarded refrain around pop campfires in 1996 as defensive B-boys, wannabe boys, and self-appointed cultural authenticators betrayed the music's origins as an inclusive framework for rewiring history's mystery. Too often this inanity was dropped in reference to the two most innovative hip-hop albums of the year, The Fugees's The Score and DJ Shadow's Endtroducing. The Fugees caught flak for their version of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly," which recast the original's heartsick pas de deux as a sensual soundclash. "Fake-ass R&B type shit" whined Jeru the Damaja, who pissed on the Fugees's ambitious renewal project, which reclaimed hip hop's West Indian sound-system roots and conscious lyricism. Could this grousing have something to do with the fact that the group's lead voice was a college-attending, suburb-representing woman? Mmm.
DJ Shadow, aka Josh Davis, also has a tough time credibility-wise, being a college-educated white kid whose debut album totally eschews rapping (though he works with a variety of MCs on his own Solesides label). Endtroducing is an instrumental treatise by way of the sampler, pushing the work of DJ geniuses Grandmaster Flash, Mantronik, Prince Paul, and DJ Premier, to an almost novelistic level of meditative storytelling. I have no doubt that hip-hop godfather Afrika Bambaataa would big-up Shadow's ingenuity. Point of reference: At a New York appearance earlier this year by the Chemical Brothers (the Beavis and Butt-head of British breakbeat techno), the evening's MCs were none other than Old School hip hoppers Kool DJ Herc and Grandmaster Caz. With nothing to prove, Herc and Caz heartily welcomed the Chemical dudes to the hip-hop family. Willfully judgmental young heads might well take heed.
Charles Aaron is senior editor at SPIN.
by Joan Freese
Writer Kathleen Norris lives and works in Lemmon, S.D., a small town that sits in the shadow of the North Dakota border. Although an accomplished poet, Norris is perhaps best known for her nonfiction, including the acclaimed Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. In that book, Norris addressed the growing anachronisms of contemporary rural life on the Great Plains. Part memoir, part spiritual journey, part geography primer, Dakota brought to page the vastness and complexity of the Plains. There, living in the home her grandparents built, removed from the mainstream of American society, Norris finds both the solitude and the community she credits for forging her artistic voice.
This year, Norris published The Cloister Walk, a memoir of time spent in residence at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn. Already an oblate, or associate, of a North Dakota monastery, Norris (a married Protestant, no less) is dropped into the thick of church intellectual and spiritual life. While striving to study and, in some ways, join the everyday life of people of faith, Norris thoughtfully contemplates the church year, the Psalms, and even the Virgin Martyrs. The Cloister Walk is beautifully written. As in Dakota, Norris reveals a poet's use of language, eloquent and precise. And woven tightly into her prose are such a wide swath of literary references, that clear the lifestyle the artist has cultivated leaves time for voracious reading.
It's profoundly moving to read a voice this true. At a time when self-help and New Age spirituality books litter bookstores (how's about Elaine St. James' three-volume series on "simplifying" your life? No contradiction there!) Norris is a refreshing reality check. She professes no easy answers, stares down no simple truths. Living a life of faith, she writes, is a messy, complicated endeavor for human beings of every stripe. And that is truly a road less traveled.
Joan Freese is a Minneapolis writer and a regular contributor to City Pages.
by Keith Moerer
On Wilco's song "Sunken Treasure," Jeff Tweedy sings that he was saved by music, but "maimed by rock & roll." It's a good line, but Tweedy, an under-30 critics' pet signed to a major label and married to the owner of Chicago's hippest club, is not the most convincing example. My vote goes to Amy Rigby, whose Diary of a Mod Housewife was the year's most unexpected pleasure. Sure, R.E.M. "survived" a monstrously tough world tour and lived to sign a new megadeal. But Rigby has squeaked by her whole adult life, intent on living a bohemian dream even as she works temp jobs to feed her young daughter and tries to hold a shaky marriage together.
Diary of a Mod Housewife is a testament to her efforts, 12 songs that are funny, sad, and harrowing, with less attitude and more truth than sometimes seems possible. The music is a hopped-up mix of rock, psychedelic pop, and smart country. The lyrics are full of dumb lust, domestic resentment, and romantic regret. "Down Side of Love" is a cross between the spunk of Carlene Carter and the hurt of Rosanne Cash before she got too poetic. "Knapsack" sounds like a distaff version of Paul Westerberg's "Skyway," just Rigby and her acoustic guitar confessing desire for the bookstore clerk she checks her bag with. As Rigby promises herself and her estranged husband on the album-closing track: "We're stronger than the fairy tales, diaper pails, lack of heat, urge to cheat, shattered hopes, tired jokes, doctor bills, urge to kill." Based on the evidence I'm not so sure, but here's hoping that she proves me wrong in 1997.
Keith Moerer is a Minneapolis writer.
by Andrew Essex
While a good chunk of the literary world spent most of last year frothing over Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace's putatively brilliant tome (at 981 pages, the book is indeed brilliant; it's also indulgent and profoundly tedious), the most astounding development in American letters took place behind the scenes in the pages of the trade rags. Don DeLillo, it was whispered in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, had apparently signed a contract for his new book, Underworld, rumored to be worth $1.7 million. DeLillo's is the author of 10 darkly comic novels, most notably White Noise, which won the National Book Award in 1985, but his books are anything but money-spinners. So why give him such an extraordinary sum of money?
Simple. Because DeLillo is the definitive writer of our time. As we brace ourselves for the fin de siècle, real life has finally caught up with his post-apocalyptic vision. The collective originality of his oeuvre has become eerily prescient; it's what makes his work so frightening and so laugh-out-loud funny. Like the Airborne Toxic Event that blackens the sky in the second act of White Noise, DeLillo's distinctive imagination has leeched its way into contemporary culture: In DeLillo you can find an antecedent for everything from designer drugs to the perfectly clipped dialogue of Tarantino.
There's another reason the publishing world wants him as a trophy even though their investment will never earn a profit: six years in the writing, Underworld is said to be nearly 2,000 pages long. Gordon Lish claims it's more important than Joyce or Faulkner we'll see. Who ever though talent would outweigh commerce as we creep gently into the 21st century?
Andrew Essex is music editor of Details.
AND JOHN SAYLES
by Terri Sutton
I understand that straight, middle-class white guys get tired of people calling them straight, middle-class white guys. I mean, give it a rest, right? Still, in a year when the rock press mechanically coughed up yet another straight white "generational spokesman" (okay, Beck's Jewish, but he's also blond), I think it's worth saying again: Women are not the only gendered people; minorities are not the only people of "race"; "queers" are not the only ones with a chosen sexuality. Every day, you guys negotiate with a social construct: white, hetero, middle-class masculinity. The extent to which you've absorbed that construct affects the way you walk, talk, listen, think, work, love, fuck, dream, dance. You might not see it yourself, but, believe me, the rest of us do. And we're waiting for you to step back and start looking at yourself like you look at the rest of us: as something peculiar and abnormal, something unnaturally made.
Which is why I'm tipping my hat this year to two white guys. Both Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and John Sayles's Lone Star observe their wandering male protagonists from an amused distance. Both films encourage minor(ity) characters to mock the "hero"--most delightfully in Dead Man, when Gary Farmer's native Nobody (ha ha) scolds the Johnny Depp character with a disgusted "Stupid white man!" But these films are not all fun and games: As anti-Westerns that make Unforgiven look like Promise Keepers propaganda, their very stories deconstruct American hero tales. Sayles subverts the Western's usual white mano-y-mano showdown by uncovering the central roles played by traditional background figures--Mexicans, women, blacks; the pale sheriff is literally screwed by his incomplete knowledge of that history. Jarmusch makes a gunfighter of a wounded accountant; yet that gunfighter may actually be dead, a poetic (justice) ghost hanging on only to rid the world of his kind. The "weaker" and more consciously dependent he gets, the better he gets at killing cluelessly dominating, greedy, inbred white men. It's not a bad metaphor. For a guy.
Terri Sutton is a Minneapolis writer and regular contributor to City Pages.
by Will Hermes
Talk to DJ Spooky, read the liner notes to his CD projects, or peep his science on the Asphodel Records website (www.wilder.net/stc/asphodel/spooky), and amidst the not-just-knee-deep academic/sci-fi fertilizer you'll find shovelfuls of provocative and (appropriately, for a DJ) sound-biteable quotes. "DJ mixing is the folk music of the 21st century" he told an interviewer earlier this year. "Gimme two records and I'll make you a universe," he boasts in the liner notes to Songs of a Dead Dreamer; later, in the same pages: "It is through the mix and all that it entails--the re-configuration of ethnic, national, and sexual identity--that humanity will, hopefully, move into another era of social evolution."
Right, said the pundits, and don't bogart that joint. But Spooky's musical output in '96--Dreamer, his mix set Necropolis: The Dialogic Project, his contributions to the Incursions in Illbient and A Storm of Drones compilations--spoke eloquently on its own. His sensual sound collages shaped virtual landscapes that held or released your interest, depending on your preference. And when his whirlpool grooves kicked in, they magically mimicked the drift and return of attention typical of any listening situation. These were meta-records so shapeshifting they've yet to become predictable, though I've heard them dozens of times.
Critics sniffed at Spooky's manifestos and his "self-promotion"--which may be partly because the artist (aka: Paul Miller, an established music writer himself) had grabbed the critical reins out of their hands. But for all his jargon, I was heartened to encounter someone who could articulate/imagine the seismic musical shift that DJ culture is heralding (Odelay-hee-hoo, Boo), not to mention his touching grooves-can-save-the-world idealism. His music also had me hearing records in new ways: rhythms and riffs, solo lines of voice or instrument, suddenly became unmoored from songs, suggesting new contexts, new mixes; listening became less passive; background noises took on new allure. It's hardly pop, but Spooky's music made two turntables (and no microphone) sound like the future of a million and one garage bands. I can hardly wait.
Will Hermes is senior arts and music editor at City Pages.
SUSANA DI PALMA
by Caroline Palmer
The frozen tundra of Minnesota may not seem like the ideal place to develop a fiery flamenco soul but Susana di Palma, director of Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre, seems to generate heat wherever she goes. In 1996 alone, di Palma produced two seasons at the Southern Theater, premiering a pair of new works exemplifying a her fresh perspective on the 600-year-old flamenco tradition.
Last February di Palma unveiled "Sadja," a version of the Frida Kahlo story portraying the woman behind the cottage industry. A vision of anger and passion, di Palma's Frida channeled the indignities of her relationship with Diego Rivera into creative intensity. Wheelchair-bound, with only a cane and a pair of quicksilver feet to pound out the beat, di Palma seemingly lost herself evoking Frida's frustrated spirit. Indulgent? Of course--but how else to present the spirit of a modern-day icon alternately obsessed and possessed by love and art.
October brought us "Garden of Names," di Palma's stage adaptation of Lawrence Thornton's magic-realist novel Imagining Argentina. I have never witnessed a work that so powerfully induces a sense of quiet and reverence. Di Palma wisely intuited that flamenco, itself a product of the Spanish Inquisition, could prove a poignant medium for the story of Argentina's "disappeared" generation. And as a memorial to the millions worldwide who have died at the hands of atrocity, "Garden of Names" serves as a reminder that life, and the power of imagination, are sacred. Di Palma deserves many curtain calls for the sensitivity, bravery and complete artistic commitment she displayed this year. (Caroline Palmer)
Caroline Palmer is a Minneapolis writer and regular contributor to City Pages.
by Cecily Marcus
Radio K has become the perfect houseguest--at times inconspicuous and at other moments, shocking, hilarious, entertaining. At its quietest, the music is solid and smart, carrying the potential that at any time a song will come on that I didn't expect and couldn't have hoped for. At its liveliest, Radio K's thoughtful DJs, imaginative selections, and wide-open request line make an unstable world in which it is no longer possible to imagine yourself alone. Radio K plays us the songs you might have selfishly imagined no one else liked, features DJs with whom you can have the most pleasant conversations (just call them), and seeks out the music that according to other stations doesn't exist.
The morning I was trying to write about why I love Radio K, the DJ, Pam, asked for her listeners' favorite albums of the year. I called in with mine, Sleater-Kinney's Call the Doctor, an album I only hear on their station. She sounded pleased that someone called in at 7:30 a.m. She seemed excited about my choice. I got excited hearing her be excited. So when the group's "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" came on the radio one minute later realized how different music sounds when you know other people are listening, and I felt like thanking the woman playing the songs and the station that, like any good artist, changes what seems possible. When Radio K signs off the air at 4:30 on a winter's afternoon, I miss my houseguest.
Cecily Marcus is A-List editor at City Pages.
THE CAST OF 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN
by Phil Anderson
So these aliens come to Earth, a.k.a. the U.S.A., to study us. Familiar enough, since long before Mork. But what do they do while here? Apart from the usual sitcom stuff--learning the weird routines of voting, or football--they wear their emotional confusion like a second skin and make gender-bending a major satirical subtext. Consistently misreading social cues, unaware that male and female should stay within tight slots, Cmdr. Dick Solomon (John Lithgow) and his "family" stare in the face of convention and smile all the while. This is especially refreshing in an era of both extra-overt (Roseanne) and covert (Ellen) forays into the territories of alternative lifestyles, whether economic or sexual.
Cmdr. Dick is a hotheaded mix of macho blunder and back porch-biddy gossip; he amalgamates two stereotypes to mock both. Matching him in both bodily contortions (a stumbling sort of grace) and independent, innocent sexuality is his "sister" Sally (Kristen Johnson), a rangy six-footer who's decided 1978's miniskirts and ribbed lycra tops are the height of style. Their "brother" Harry (French Smith) researches pop culture (Houdini escapes, cartoon anvils) like it was ancient Urdu, while Dick's "son" Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) defies other TV teens by being stable and sensible. This is a ripe package of personas, fittingly completed by Jane Curtin as a real Earthling, who easily matches Lithgow in the physical desperation department. In fact, these two paragons of middle-ageism cover far more interesting ground--both serious and whimsical--than Tim (Home Improvement) Taylor and his neighbor Wilson could ever come up with.
Phil Anderson is a Minneapolis writer and regular contributor to City Pages.
THE WOODY GUTHRIE CONFERENCE MUSICIANS
by Dave Marsh
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's first academic event held on September 28-29 presented a half-dozen of the finest performances I saw all year and convinced me that something like a new folk revival really might be brewing. The predictable great ones were by Ani DiFranco (below), whose "Do Re Mi" opened the Sunday concert with an arrangement so personal, bitter, dissonant, and beautiful that it threw all the experts off their bearings, and by Bruce Springsteen, not for his Guthrie interpretations but because of his rendition of his own "Across the Border," the most poignant I've ever heard him do.
The surprises came on Saturday, at the club show ("hootenanny") where Alejandro Escovedo, Jimmy LaFave, John Wesley Harding, Billy Bragg, Jorma Kaukonen, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, among others, made a singer-songwriter revival seem less a possibility than a reality. Escovedo's version of "Deportee," in which he talked about his own father's pilgrimage from Saltillo to Texas as a teenager 70 years ago, not only blew away Springsteen's--it was probably the best rendition of that great tune ever done, certainly the only one where "Los Gatos Canon" was pronounced properly. At a singer-songwriter workshop that afternoon, Escovedo (below) told of writing his first song after the father of some of his Rank and File bandmates told him that Mexicans should forget their history. His response, "The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over," flattened everyone in the room, converting centuries of insulted dignity into a mesmerizing burst of poetry and melody (the same kind of thing that led Woody to write "This Land") while evoking a magnificent love of family.
To close the workshop, an unbilled Dan Bern showed up, borrowed John Wesley Harding's guitar, and played "Oklahoma," his rewrite of Woody's "Dust Storm Disaster" as a parable about bombing and racism. Would Woody have been proud? Hell, he would have loved Bragg's UK-specific rewrite of "This Land is Your Land," and he might even have finally understood why he's in the Hall of Fame.
Dave Marsh is editor of Rock & Rap Confidential.
DAVID FOSTER WALLACE
by Michael Tortorello
Naming an artist of the year can seem an exercise in energetic punditry. Last year, for instance, I picked the Unabomber. But when I learned that no one else at this paper planned to name author David Foster Wallace, I knew that Teddy K. could not get the nod a second time--however great the temptation and ingenious the explanation.
I falter here to attempt any synopsis of Wallace's second novel, Infinite Jest. I will say that it involves pubescent tennis prodigies, various addictions, Quebecois wheelchair assassins, family dynamics, and a society with an itch for universal pleasure stimulation... and I'll leave it at that. Infinite Jest is big and difficult and expansive and generous and it had me hemorrhaging superlatives for the better part of six months. Like me, many of the arbiters of "quality" culture purported to like this book a lot. For a while, Wallace was receiving TV invitations, Rolling Stone was trailing him, and everything was a little out of joint media-wise.
Then, just as suddenly, the moment had passed. Madonna was pregnant. Liv Tyler was young and beautiful. Onward Capitalist Soldiers! But I still found myself thinking about the book. Talking about it with Stoop-Sitting Steve across the street at night. Swapping e-mail with El Gato's ex-girlfriend Vanoose, whom I have never met. We all sought each other out. There was idle talk of a study group. The book--however tortured and intentionally obscure it sometimes seemed--had captured something that was true for us. "I feel like I have a special book on my hands," Steve said this summer, smiling self-consciously at his adjective-choice. He was right.
Michael Tortorello is a Minneapolis writer and regular contributor to City Pages.
LARS VON TRIER
by Rob Nelson
Every artist is God of what he or she creates. But cinema, of all mediums, seems the most conducive to artistic divinity, as it allows for omniscience, manipulation, judgment of character, and the invention of a self-contained world. The Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier commands all these forces in his new movie, Breaking the Waves (opening here on January 10)--not to exercise a form of directorial self-worship, but to emphasize our fragility. No wonder von Trier hates to travel; it would mean putting his fate in the hands of a higher narrative power than his own. And not for nothing did he name his previous film The Kingdom, and set it in a hospital--a waystation between God and man, the living and the dead.
Breaking the Waves is even more spiritual and melodramatic. As in Todd Haynes's Safe and Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue, a woman is faced with a seemingly insurmountable crisis: Bess (Emily Watson), a "susceptible" newlywed living on the north coast of Scotland in the early '70s, prays that her husband (Stellan Skarsgard) will return from his stint on an oil rig, which God seems to answer by sending him home as a quadriplegic. Thus, Bess's maker--which is to say von Trier--puts her (and the viewer) to the test.
Despite her extreme vulnerability, Bess's greatest strength is her faith. Likewise, von Trier responds to the post-Tarantino film culture--and the clever insularity of his own early work (The Element of Crime, Zentropa)--by withholding the slightest trace of ironic distance. There are limits to how closely film can convey raw emotion, but von Trier aims to go over the top anyway--in the end arriving at a transcendent image that is literally from on high. Especially given his reverence for '60s and '70s AOR tunes, I'm sure the filmmaker wouldn't object to the following assertion: Lars Von Trier is God.
Rob Nelson is film editor at City Pages.
by Julie Caniglia
A friend recently let her SPIN subscription lapse, saying she could no longer relate to anything in it. I'd begun feeling the same way--until June, that is, when Landers began conducting his "Genius Lessons" on the back page of the magazine. Now this rambling column, handwritten (with frequent misspellings) and illustrated by the author, is the first thing I flip to when the issue arrives.
Landers made a name for himself as an artist (this is more accurate than saying he is an artist) with ceiling-to-floor canvases covered in stupifyingly self-absorbed text. Like the best repulsive things, they're curiously alluring and damned funny; hence, he's become a hot property in the art world. As a columnist, Landers has less-than-kind words for rock stars, the rock industry, and therefore by association, SPIN itself. Nor does he ingratiate himself with readers, telling them in his inaugural essay that "if I were your older brother I'd kick your ass so regularly that if you didn't flinch when you walked past me it'd be from brain damage not courage." He judges his target audience to be "probably aged 15-30," but I feel like he's writing for anyone grown disenchanted with rock music and journalism and the state of pop culture in general--or more important, those on the older side of the youngest generation gap.
"Genius Lessons" isn't all jokey antagonism, however. Landers has a famed penchant (or compulsion) for self-disclosure (not to mention self-ridicule), often based around his '70s fixation, which "like so many ironic gestures... soon became all too real." Indeed, signing off each month as "Your Friend Sean," he packs each Lesson with so much irony that they come out as a perverse, rather embittered form of truth--and a much-needed respite from a culture bloated by its own hype.
Julie Caniglia is arts editor at City Pages.
by Britt Robson
As a 43-year-old white male, I won't pretend to fully grasp the social, racial, and economic refractions that culminated in Tupac's thug martyrdom. But to those, particularly my peers, who dismiss his death as just desserts, I can tell you that his romantic bullshit was more credible and charismatic than Jim Morrison's, and that his need to be noticed was as palpably desperate as Janis Joplin's--to cite two others done in by their lifestyles.
As an artist who refused to ever take the middle ground, Tupac embodied a culture addicted to a melodramatic, Cliff's Notes view of life, endlessly hitting the instant replay button for highlights. Some of his output was hateful, especially toward women. But almost all of it burned with visceral insights, delivered with the concentrated intensity of a tightrope walker and set to dynamic music that essentially christened a genre of gangsta-pop. Many songs speak openly and eloquently of death, an endgame whose allure Tupac reveled in. "All these muthafuckahs want to be like us/Want to be the have-nots," he rapped on the appropriately titled "White Man'z World," a song from the posthumously released Makaveli CD, which currently sits at the top of the Billboard charts, fueled by sales to suburban kids looking for a contact hit of danger.
Fortunately, it doesn't end there. While Tupac's nearly-scripted denoument split opinion as to whether he should be deified as the "realest" gangsta rapper ever or dismissed as just another sucker on the wrong end of the gun, all the punditry and eulogizing hasn't come close to really nailing who and what he was, and why. In the end, Tupac forced pretentious white critics and hardcore street players alike to reexamine their responses to a music occasionally referred to as "reality rap." Whatever you ultimately think of the man and his music, that kind of challenge is the essential function of an artist.
Britt Robson is an associate editor at City Pages.
by Josie Rawson
Hass was named U.S. Poet Laureate last year--a title without much substance that gets routinely handed to academics who work hard at offending no one. Hass seems to have survived that station, and in the aftermath has written a collection that would certainly offend anyone who values a quick, disposable read. This year's Sun Under Wood takes place in a terrain first suggested in "Praise" (1979): "All the new thinking is about loss," he wrote then. "In this it resembles all the old thinking." But it's not mere nostalgia for what's been lost that fires these new poems. There's great compassion in them, a reverence for nature and for the body erotic that feels all too absent in the day-to-day rush. Spending time with Hass reminds you to peel off the armor, open the internal flaps, let bitterness go.
I get greedy reading Robert Hass. Greedy for more poems when his books end, for another round of his good intelligence, for his language that goes up against all the slick passions of the merchandising world. Even more than his Human Wishes (1989), Sun Under Wood insists on slowing the tempo to a speed that makes you almost ashamed of the haste required to just get things done these days. His poems, though quite lyrical, follow a narrative tack--often in long, supple lines that break against the margins and into meditative prose. It may take a few pages to tune your attention to his pitch--which is a difficult pleasure in itself, and a kind of reminder to stay still awhile, in this fixed place. Flush all the noise from your brain. No deadlines. No hurry.
Josie Rawson is a staff writer at City Pages.
by Jim Walsh
As is the case with many do-gooders and local musicians, it has been easy to take Larry Long for granted. The veteran folkie has always been around, playing one rally or gig or another, recording, or stumping for the Mississippi River Revival Project. And on the surface, 1996 seemed to be no different, with Long singing out at the Phil Ochs tribute, kicking into the "We Can Do Better" chorus for Paul Wellstone, mourning the death of his friend Meridel Le Sueur, etc. But there was one major difference: in 1996, Larry Long made the record of his life.
During the past three years, Long traveled to rural Alabama to record 50 hours of tape that would become the 28 tracks that make up the spoken word/music project Here I Stand: Elders' Wisdom, Children's Song (Smithsonian/Folkways). Long went into various communities and interviewed old folks, whose untold stories were turned into songs by Long and the children and then recorded. The final product is a rich celebration of work and faith sung by people who are, as Long puts it, "under the gun." It is an extraordinary piece of songcraft, grassroots activism, and the most DIY record I heard all year, since Long set up a curriculum that allows other artists and communities to put his work into practice. Which is why this St. Cloud State philosophy major drop-out is my choice for artist of the year, and if anyone gets around to asking, teacher of the year.
Jim Walsh is the pop music critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
by Carolyn Kuebler
Carole Maso is not just a wickedly brilliant writer, but a daringly feminist one at that. At once challenging and transcendent, her luxurious prose breaks all the rules. With her fifth novel, Aureole, published this year, she once again proves herself to be a fearless chronicler of that space where lust and literature collide.
Maso's style can be excessive and abrasive, but its imperfections are always countered by self-awareness, shimmering beauty, or a deep sense of irony. She can "sing the world ecstatic," raising the level of linguistic eroticism to a fever pitch, but she is also capable of conveying the terror of death and the chaos of life. She openly borrows from the works of Marguerite Duras, the Grimm Brothers, Virginia Woolf, Garcia Lorca, Sappho, and many others, but remains an absolute original. While AVA may still be the most exquisite of her works, all of them contain marvelous arrangements of narrative, allusion, memory, and music. They invoke a new kind of feminism, one that does not insist on conventions and leaves ample room for unorthodox approaches to writing.
In addition to publishing Aureole, her "erotic etudes" that were years in the works, this year Maso lent her voice to the discussions of "Technology and the Muse" in Sven Birkerts's Tolstoy's Dictaphone, and to "The Future of Fiction," a special issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction edited by David Foster Wallace. Both the novel and the anthologized essay offer bold encouragement to anyone who refuses to believe that literature has by now reached its full capacity. Her writing is proof that the millennium need not inspire that popular coupling of nostalgia and fear, but that it holds the promise of a more inclusive, vibrant, and limitless language.
Carolyn Kuebler is co-editor of Rain Taxi Review of Books.
by Jim DeRogatis
Rarely has it been so tempting to write off a follow-up. "Loser" had one-hit-wonder written all over it; the fake Dylanisms on the rest of Mellow Gold reeked of poetic pretension, and Mr. Hansen's live shows were marred by those bogus 20-minute acoustic blues interludes that made me fantasize about Ray and Glover kicking his blond Boho ass and showing him how it's really done. Then there was the hype behind the new one: Odelay was hailed as album of the year by SPIN, Request, and Rolling Stone, and you can pretty much bet that the big-deal Village Voice "Pazz and Jop" poll will follow suit. Hell, rock critics love Beck so much, The New York Times's Neil Strauss even got up on stage to break dance with him (and if that isn't enough to make you lose your lunch, I don't know what is).
Despite these seemingly insurmountable odds, I learned to stop worrying and love the Beck, and I'll tell you how I did it: I let the tunes wash over me and stopped caring about whether he had anything to say. He doesn't, and neither is he the great postmodern visionary that many of his peers say he is. He's just a guy with impeccable taste in samples ("The Moog and Me," "I Can Only Give You Everything"), an ear for incredibly cool sounds (old analog synths, some killer sax, a bit of sitar and tabla), and a sure-fire way with a groove that makes that "enchanting wizard of rhythm" bit in "Hot Wax" seem like justified boasting.
I'm not saying you should believe the hype. But in a year of really strong genre-hopping groove albums--Luscious Jackson's Fever In Fever Out, Mark's Keyboard Repair by DJ Money Mark, and DJ Shadow's Endtroducing... among them--Beck made the best, and he even made a believer out of me.
Jim DeRogatis is author of Kaleidoscope Eyes: Psychedelic Rock from the '60s to the '90s (Citadel Underground).
by E.J. Levy
Left off New York magazine's list of the 100 smartest New Yorkers, Hal Hartley has been perennially overlooked on annual round-ups. However, with the release of what is arguably his worst film, Flirt, he crashed the gates of the prestigious New York Film Festival and garnered critical acclaim. Nevertheless, his appearance at a screening of the film at the Walker in May gave me my quote of the year: "I want to be affected by everything," he said.
If Hartley's films attest to the possibility of acting with integrity in the face of the relentless commodification of all that is best in us--art, love, desire, faith, knowledge--Flirt is his first sell-out. Made, Hartley says glibly, because he was given the money to make it, and featuring gratuitous nudity (though he once said that he avoids nudity because every time he sees someone take off their clothes in a film he was aware he'd paid money for it), Flirt marked the nadir of my art-going year.
Nevertheless, Hartley's my artist of the year because in a culture that trivializes things like art, love, desire, faith, and knowledge, he reminds us why they count. Unabashedly philosophical, formally complex, his films blend brilliant comic timing with a earnest intellection. In Amateur, his best film yet, the editor of a dirty magazine comforts an ex-nun who has failed to write a smutty story (she has written poetry instead). "A mistake," he says, "is not necessarily a failure... Look at me. I'm a fairly successful editor of dirty magazines. I never intended this.... But, you know, things happen... We drift away from our vocation." Hartley's films remind us that we have a vocation; I have faith he has not drifted from his.
E.J. Levy edited Tasting Life Twice, which received a Lambda Literary Award.
by Jon Dolan
The critical cliche goes like this: James Carter is a rock star. A saxophone-squawkin', silk-tie sportin', Bennie Moten-swingin' r-o-c-k star. But it's hard to disagree. His brand of jazz revivalism delivers the classiest take I've heard yet on the everything-old-is-new school of pop culture revisionism that has fueled, for better or for worse, so much of '90s hip-culture's quest for self-definition. Yet, unlike the '70s sitcom arcana nerds and cabaret kitsch fans that characterize hipster consensus circa 1996, Carter, at 27, approaches history with something even the best of his (mine, your?) generation just doesn't have: respect.
His brilliant 1996 album for his late father, Conversin' With the Elders, recycles 60 years of jazz history and fuses them into a sweet new style that can only be summed up by the title of its transcendent tune, "FreeReggaeHibBop." Whether he's covering John Coltrane or Anthony Braxton, paying respects to Charlie Parker, weirding out on Lester Young, or playing Lester Young in the very hot house band in the not-so-hot movie Kansas City, this self-proclaimed fan of cartoon soundtrack composer Carl Stalling and the Wu Tang's Ol' Dirty Bastard kicks a flavor that has my recovering indie-rock geek self convinced he's the best thing American postmodernism has going. And I can't think of a better way for people my age (I'm 23) to get in touch with the richest American art there is than by throwing themselves ass over head into Carter's back-talkin' new blues. It beats the hell out of Juan-Garcia Esquivel reissues.
Jon Dolan is a Minneapolis writer.
by Beni Matias
It's winter. When I need a fix of Puerto Rican heat I go to my dining room. No, I'm not looking for food for the body. It's food for the soul: An inexpensive print by the young Puerto Rican artist Defnia hangs on the wall. Her whimsical interpretation of la Mano Sagrada--her father, mother, former boyfriend, and herself as finger puppets--reinvents the religious icon of the Sacred Hand where each finger represents a member of the holy family--baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Mary's parents Ana and Joachim. The background is Old San Juan. Narrow colonial houses where women dance in dark archways, people float in mid-air hanging off clotheslines criss-crossing the plaza, and men and women hold hands to form a ring around the wrist of the giant hand, which dominates the print. Defnia captures the internal tension of Puerto Rican families. We communicate without talking. Family members become mind readers. There is individuality that carries with it many of the family traits. The extended family is there to support and rally around us. They witness who we are and what we are doing. Defnia's print reminds why I stay away from my family for long periods of time, and why I go running back to them searching out their nonstop chatter and movement.
Beni Matias is director of The Center for Arts Criticism.
LIONROCK W/MC BUZZ B
by Jeff Salamon
Tricky deserves all the props he gets, but when it comes to socially-conscious trip-hop, sometimes I'll take the merely somber over the hopelessly bleak. When I wanted that in 1996, I put on Lionrock's "Straight at Yer Head," off their An Instinct for Detection CD (Deconstruction import). "I want to taste a new dessert/To see how other people work/To see them irrigate the dirt/With water from a bank," MC Buzz B raps at the song's beginning, setting a tone of curiosity that's unusual in popular music. The couplet that follows--"I took my tape and tape recorder/And made my way up to the border"--establishes a journalistic sensibility that, along with Buzz's throaty, slow-mo delivery, places you in Gil Scott-Heron territory. The backing track is loping and spooky, and you feel yourself settling into a narrative master's hands. Then you're rudely brought up short: Buzz completes his AAAB rhyme scheme with the lines "Where I received a legal order/From a man who drove a tank." The border patrol in question is no Sphinx or wizened Gatekeeper who'll reward wit or wisdom; shove off, he tells our narrator, "the only way to enter is with gold."
After the first verse, the song loses its specificity, but never its sense of calm outrage (though never actually mentioned, Buzz's skin color is a subtext here). Oddly, most of Instinct for Detection is made up of the sort of techno/wordless dance music that, in my 30s, I've wound up embracing in a flight from rock's incessantly-teenaged lyrical concerns. Yet here, of all places, I've wound up renewing my faith that pop music might still have something to say. Which is as good a buzz as I've gotten all year.
Jeff Salamon is a writer currently living in Austin, Texas.
by Matt Keppel
"I think I'm a Martian," Parker Posey said in an interview this year. "The distance appeals to me." The statement seems appropriate coming out of the saucy mouth of this 28-year-old actress. So many of the characters she has played--Mary Boone, the manipulative art gallery owner in this year's Basquiat; or Mary, the club kid-cum-library clerk title role in last year's Party Girl--have an eccentric, deadpan distance that plays up Posey's best assets, namely a sarcasm sharp enough to cut glass.
A Laurel, Miss., native educated at SUNY, Posey sped through the commercial pap of her early acting years (the teen brat Tess on As The World Turns being a good example) to reach character-actress royalty in the realm of indie film by the mid-'90s. Time and again she winds up as the sole redeemer of mediocre indies (1995's Kicking and Screaming, Frisk, The Doom Generation) and even the highlight of more successful fare (Hal Hartley's Amateur and Flirt). Starring in no fewer than six movies set for release in 1997, including the eagerly awaited Richard Linklater adaptation of Eric Bogosian's play subUrbia, it should prove to be manna from Posey heaven. Considering the backlog of films she has in-waiting, do you think her sass and skills will win over any new fans? If not,who cares? "I would like to get really big and huge so I could go to space. I would like to be the first actress in space," she says, "You think they would let Barbra Streisand go in the space shuttle if she wanted to?"
Matt Keppel is a Minneapolis writer and regular contributor to City Pages.
THE DIVAS OF SWEDISH POP
by Simon Peter Groebner
Sweden, a country inhabited by only 8 million people, produced a ridiculously high number of pop records in 1996, many of them among the year's best. Deconstructing American and Anglo pop-forms with exotic production and compositional talent, the best "Swedepop" bands had about three things in common: shared memory of the loungy jazz-pop of '70s Swedish children's TV; the inexplicable ability to sell thousands of records to hip teens in Tokyo; and finally, astonishingly delightful vocalists.
To wit: Singer Lena Karlsson's stoic elegance complimented the genius of Komeda (Swedepop plus Krautrock), who are succeeding in America after a decade of obscurity at home--perhaps because Americans are so hot for irony these days and Komeda are one of Sweden's few, juicily detached players. Jennie Medin gave a warmer glamour to Linkoping's Cloudberry Jam (Swedepop plus Solid Gold Soul), who are big in Japan but hopefully not too romantic for future acceptance here. Emma Härdelin summoned the spirits of ancient Norse god(desse)s in folk-rockers Garmarna (Swedepop minus 300 years), who draw heavily on tradition without conceding an ounce of modernity. Solo songwriter Sophie Zelmani's major-label debut was a peculiar mix of Stockholm and Nashville. And I'm just getting started.
But if anyone is the unwitting icon of the 1996-97 Swedepop Explosion, let it be Nina Persson of the hitmaking Cardigans. "Who else do you think she sounds like?" asked the friend who introduced me to her alternately defiant and lulling alto. The answer, in fact, is no one. I'll defer the discussion of her comeliness to Details, except to say that the way she uses her sexuality is by practically refusing to. In the seven months between the Cardigans' two U.S. albums, Persson morphed from the famously cutesy snow queen on the cover of Life (which was tongue-in-cheek, silly) to the smart satirist of bad relationships on First Band on the Moon; that angelic coo only sharpening her barbs. Knowing Americans, we may still dismiss the band as novelty. But c'mon: If the best rock heroine the Angry Woman backlash can produce is No Doubt's Gwen Stefani, aren't we ready for something with a bit more substance and style? My advice: look to Sweden.
Simon Peter Groebner is a Minneapolis writer and regular contributor to City Pages.
by L. Adler
I read several new novels this year that I thought were wonderful but none of them lodged in my mind the way Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure did. Nor did they inspire in me the sort of fanaticism for an author that overtakes me less and less often and that I don't want to lose. The sort that makes me swear and pound the table because the author of what I'm reading is so fucking good and I'm utterly and positively and completely inadequate.
Published in 1895, Jude was roundly criticized as obscene, and in 1896 Hardy vowed never to write fiction again. He lived for 33 more years, and unfortunately, kept his promise. A century later Jude still shocks, not because it's obscene (it's tame by today's standards) but because of it's unremitting bleakness and a psychological acuity more akin to the work of Philip Roth and Mary Gaitskill than Charles Dickens. Perhaps that explains why educators assign Dickens over Hardy. I remember my high school English teacher using A Tale of Two Cities to illustrate the difference between a flat character like Lucie Manette and a round character like Sydney Carton. I didn't have the guts to ask why Dickens was considered a first-rate novelist if his books contained paper dolls. And in Hardy? In Jude the Obscure as in life, there are no flat characters. Just round and slippery and painful humanity. Read the book, skip the movie.
L. Adler is a New York writer.
by Amanda Ferguson
While sitting in the theater watching Leigh's Secrets & Lies, I couldn't help overhearing a couple's constant quarrel from across the aisle. Each time a funny scene rolled, the man would begin a frenzy of snorts and guffaws. The cinematic scene would quickly dissolve into something quite dismal, causing the man's companion to thwack him in the stomach and hiss, "stop laughing, asshole."
Herein lies a signature of Leigh's genius, his ability to let a situation--in this case, the black,
middle-class, serene Hortense's first meeting with her white, working-class, nervous wreck of a biological mother, Cynthia--rise and fall in natural waves between dull and eventful, tragic and charmed. Leigh has other signatures too, among them the ability to choose actors who are a joy to watch, not because they're pumped with silicone or preternaturally beautiful, but because they aren't. He has an amazing talent for telling a story without the aids of a bulky script, special effects, exotic locations or situations, and for using lighting and camera techniques with the grace of a master painter--not to flatter the characters, but to portray them honestly. Leigh holds a place on that extremely short list of filmmakers who a) don't seem to have overblown egos and b) don't make their movies for an assumed audience of shallow twits.
Amanda Ferguson is a Minneapolis writer and regular contributor to City Pages.
by Brad Zellar
Hayden Carruth--whose Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, Poems 1991-1995 won the this year's National Book Award for poetry--is that rare thing, a discouraging inspiration. Discouraging because at 75 he's still such a fucked-up wreck; inspiring because he's gifted with a great and unusual mind-- one still capable of setting beautiful synaptic and syntactic brush fires, and stirring from the wreckage of his life surprising bursts of gratitude and wonder, even in the throes of long-haul unhappiness.
Always a rock-solid technician, Carruth seems now to have fully absorbed and blended all his influences, affinities, and major themes. In virtually every one of these newer poems he manages a sort of anguished serenity, brief and crystalline moments of revelation and resignation in the midst of "the crisis of forever inadequately medicated pain." There are poems of remembering, poems of politics ("How can poetry be written by people who want no change?"), mortality, and love. Carruth is one of the great poets of convincingly modern, thoroughly complicated, and wholly redemptive love. "It seems a miracle," he writes. "Not mystical, nothing occult,/ just the ordinary improbability that occurs/ over and over, the stupendousness/ of life Out on the highway on the pavement wet/ with snow-melt, cars go whistling past."
A great poet who manages to grow old and retain--even expand--his or her talents is a blessing, if not entirely blessed. That Hayden Carruth is being showered with laurels in his old age is fitting and poetic justice.
Brad Zellar is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.
by Sarah Vowell
Even though he put out a lovable new album and saw three great old ones get reissued, there were more newsworthy musicians this year than Jonathan Richman. Beck, for instance, single-filed history, technology and poetry into a kind of shit-kicking American line dance that was as charming as it was fresh. But there wasn't another artist whom I turned to more than the ever-unfashionable man all us fans call Jojo. Maybe it was the way that he can, a la Beck, cut'n'paste musical samples from Chic to Lou Reed--only he does it using his bare Fender Stratocaster and that stuffed-up voice he was born with. Maybe it was because every time I felt stark-raving awkward, I'd put on his eight-minute live version of "Ice Cream Man" just so I wasn't the only obsessed freak in the room. Maybe it was because every time I felt like I said too much I'd get out his "Amazing Grace," hear about "freedom from shame," and vow to keep talking.
But mostly, I took courage (and isn't courage, not news, what this Artist of the Year business is all about?) from The Move. If you've ever seen him live, you know of which I speak: He throws wide his arms, opens his palms and lifts his chin ever so slightly in a naked gesture of unabashed tenderness. It is always devastating, uninhibited, shocking. Every time I see it, see the gutsy faith it takes to be that exposed and soft, I remember that sometimes, gentle's the bravest thing you can be.
Sarah Vowell's Radio On: A Listener's Diary was just published by St. Martin's Press. CP
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